World Cup Recap — Match 8: Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (June 16)

A first-half own goal by Nigeria defender Oghenekaro Etebo and a second-half penalty by Luka Modric was enough to see Croatia through to a 2-0 victory in the Group D opener of the World Cup for these teams Saturday in Kaliningrad.

Neither side looked overly impressive, with the youthful Super Eagles failing to seriously threaten on the counterattack while the Vatreni were content to knock the ball around and slow down the game. The strategy worked as Croatia moved atop Group D after group favorites Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw by Iceland earlier Saturday.

Both goals started with Croatia corner kicks, with Andrej Kramaric’s diving header nicking off the right foot of Etebo and inside the left post in the 32nd minute. In the 70th minute, referee Sandro Ricci awarded a rare penalty for a defensive foul on a corner kick, though it was justified as Nigeria defender William Troost-Ekong was draped all over Mandzukic and took him to the turf.

Modric, continuing a banner year which saw him win the Champions League title with Real Madrid last month, stared down Nigeria keeper Francis Uzoho before slotting the penalty into the lower left corner.

Croatia started the brighter of the two sides, with Ivan Perisic blazing over the bar with a curling right-footed shot from 20 minutes and Mandzukic also having a go from distance. When Nigeria found footing to counter, it was often foiled by a lack of touch in the final third and failed to put a shot on frame in the opening half.

Etebo’s fateful error came on a corner taken by Modric that was nodded on by Ante Rebic in the six-yard box before Kramaric made contact. The goal livened up the contest, with Kramaric nearly grabbing a goal for himself but failing to keep his header under the bar on a cross from Ivan Rakitic.

The Super Eagles applied pressure after the interval, starting the second half with a succession of three corners, with Victor Moses’ shot going over the bar the best finish of those set pieces.

If there is a concern for the Vatreni it is the lack of offense in open play which consigned them to qualifying for this tournament via playoff. Croatia did not have a shot on frame in the run of play until second-half stoppage time, and for all of Modric’s string-pulling in the midfield, there was a lack of urgency to put consistent pressure on Nigeria.

That urgency will have to be found for Croatia’s next match since it is against what will be an aggravated Argentina side, while Nigeria will try to maintain its hopes of advancing to the knockout round for the second straight World Cup versus Iceland.

2018 World Cup Recap — Match 7: Denmark 1, Peru 0 (June 16)

Yussuf Poulsen atoned for a penalty by scoring on a rapid-fire counter in the 59th minute as Denmark spoiled Peru’s return to the World Cup after a 36-year absence with a hard-earned 1-0 victory Saturday in Saransk.

Poulsen, who was spared when Christian Cueva sent his attempt from the spot well over the crossbar after he hauled down Edison Flores late in the first half, broke forward on a 3-on-3 counterattack with playmaker Christian Eriksen. The Spurs midfielder slid the ball to his left, where Poulsen raced into the box and beat Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese inside the near post from 10 yards.

Denmark keeper Kasper Schmeichel preserved the clean sheet with two world-class saves, one coming shortly after the goal when he got his left hand to a shot by Flores. Minutes after Peru captain Paolo Guerrero nearly scored on a backheel that rolled agonizingly wide of the right post, Schmeichel then got his right foot on an attempt from 15 yards by Jefferson Farfan.

The win lifts Denmark into second place in Group C, behind France on goals scored, while Peru is third ahead of Australia on the same tiebreaker.

After being absent from football biggest stage for nearly four decades, Peru looked determined to make up for all that lost time as the South American team played with vigor and often used its pace to repeatedly break out of its own end. Yoshimir Yatun sent an early notice of the Incas’ intent early, trying from 30 yards that Schmeichel comfortably stopped.

Peru continued to make trouble, with Andre Sisto forcing Schmeichel into a diving save in the 12th minute on a curling effort aiming for the lower left corner. Denmark defender Andreas Christensen made a well-timed tackle at the top of the penalty area to swipe the ball away from Luis Advincula.

Things continued to go against the Danes as central midfielder William Kvist was foced off just after a half-hour due to a rib injury suffered in a collision with Farfan. Denmark finally grew into the game at that point, with Eriksen blasting a free kick into the wall and Poulsen narrowly missed getting his foot to a cross sent by Thomas Delany.

Referee Bakary Papa Gassama consulted VAR in awarding Peru a penalty after he determined Poulssen clipped Flores. Cueva, though, stutter-stepped during his run-up to the ball and appeared to lose his stride before sending a right-footed shot into the crowd instead of on frame.

Going back to the second leg of its playoff with Ireland in which Denmark fell behind in the sixth minute before roaring back to win 5-1 behind a hat trick from Eriksen, Schmeichel has not conceded a goal in 534 minutes and in five matches this calendar year.

Guerrero, who had been reinstalled to Peru’s roster after his ban for failing a drug test was suspended shortly before the World Cup, appeared as a substitute in the 62nd minute. The Flamengo striker is Peru’s all-time leading scorer with 34 goals.

2018 World Cup Recap — Match 6: Argentina 1, Iceland 1 (June 16)

Hannes Halldorsson’s save on a penalty kick by Lionel Messi in the 64th minute helped World Cup debutants Iceland grind out a 1-1 draw with two-time champions Argentina in the Group D opener in Moscow.

Playing virtually the entire second half in their own half of the pitch, the Strakarnir Okkar stubbornly held out against the 2014 runners-up and pre-World Cup favorites. Iceland was outshot 27-8, with Halldorsson making five saves behind a well-drilled defense that flooded players to the ball whenever an Argentina player had the slightest line of vision to shoot.

Messi, who stepped up to the spot after Sergio Aguero was run over by Hordur Magnusson as he tracked a cross into the penalty area, hit his attempt with pace but did not put it far away enough from Halldorsson, who correctly dove to his right and punched the shot from danger.

Messi had two chances to atone after his penalty miss, narrowly missing wide of the left post in the 82nd minute and then drilling a free kick into the Iceland wall in stoppage time. Halldorsson would have one more moment of glory, getting his left hand to a cross-turned-shot from the left by Carlos Pavon in the 87th minute that seemed destined for the far post.

The split of points leaves everything to play for in Group D as Nigeria and Croatia play later Saturday.

Aguero staked Argentina to a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute, taking a pass from Marco Rojo and turning to his left to find a half-step of space before beating Halldorsson with a 12-yard left-footed shot into the upper left side of the net. Iceland, though, equalized four minutes later as goalkeeper Willy Caballero spilled a cross by Gylfi Sigurdsson back into the middle of the penalty area, where Alfred Finnbogason pounced on the rebound and slotted home from the top of the six-yard box.

Iceland showed few signs of nerves in its first World Cup appearance which came on the heels of its first European Championship berth two years ago in which it stunned England in the round of 16 en route to a quarterfinal appearance. The Strakarnir Okkar should have had the lead inside 10 minutes, but Birkir Bjarnason dragged his shot from 10 yards wide of the left post after a shot by Johann Gudmundsson deflected in his direction.

That came almost straightaway after a near goal by Argentina in which defender Nicolas Tagliafico hit a stooping header that skipped narrowly wide of the left post before Halldorsson had time to react.

The match then settled into a pattern in which Argentina would have possession for what appeared to be minutes at a time trying to find creases in Iceland’s two lines of four that were stationed in the final third. Iceland often played all 10 men behind the ball, with right back Birkir Saevarsson consistently defusing the threat Angel Di Maria tried to create wide on the left.

Messi had plenty of touches and wound up taking 11 of Argentina’s 27 shots, putting three of them on frame. Argentina made it a point to funnel the ball to him through thge midfield when it gained possession, but Iceland often had numbers back defensively to prevent him from making a final push into the penalty area where he could use his lethal right foot.

 

World Cup Recap — Match 5: France 2, Australia 1 (June 16)

VAR made its first game-changing impact at the World Cup in Kazan, where a penalty was awarded before Paul Pogba’s looping shot in the 80th minute allowed a sluggish France side to escape with a 2-1 victory over Australia in the opening match in Group C.

In the 55th minute, Antoine Griezmann broke into the penalty area, where Joshua Risdon appeared to have made a proper tackle to knock the ball away from Griezmann and to Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan. After play continued, video assistant referee Mauro Vigliano signaled to Andres Cunha to review the play just off the pitch.

After examining the replay, Cunha awarded a penalty to France, which Griezmann calmly slammed into the net in the 57th minute to open the scoring. Risdon was also given a yellow card for denying an obvious goal-scoring chance.

It was a short-lived lead for Les Bleus, however, as Australia equalized via a clear-cut penalty four minutes later. France defender Samuel Umtiti inexplicably made contact with the ball with his hand in the penalty area trying to clear a free kick taken by Aaron Mooy.

Mile Jedinak pulled the Socceroos level by putting the ball into the right side of the net as France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris dove in the opposite direction.

The introduction of substitute Olivier Giroud gave some shape to Les Bleus, who were able to pin Australia in its final third though not creating many threatening chances. The decisive goal by Pogba came after a pass from Giroud, and the Manchester United midfielder took a toe poke from the top of the penalty area that may have taken a slight deflection off an Australian defender as it looped over Ryan and hit the crossbar before dropping completely over the line to make it 2-1.

The three points gained hides plenty of issues for France, considered one of the pre-World Cup favorites with a very talented but also very young side under Didier Deschamps. Les Bleus failed to establish a rhythm for much of the match against a well-drilled Australia side that was not afraid to venture forward when it gained possession.

After an early flurry by France in the first 10 minutes of the match in which Ryan had to be alert on multiple occasions, Australia wound up with the best scoring opportunity of the opening 45 minutes. Mooy curled a free kick into no man’s land, where France midfielder Corentin Tolisso touched the ball and forced Lloris into a diving save by his left post.

France moves onto its second match in Group C against Peru on Thursday at Ekaterinburg, while Australia will try to regroup versus Denmark the same day in Samara.

2018 World Cup — Group E Costa Rica vs Serbia Match Preview

The surprise package of the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica looks to show its quarterfinal appearance four years ago was no fluke as it faces Serbia in the Group E opener Sunday in Samara.

Little was expected from the CONCACAF side in Brazil after being placed in a group with champions Italy, Uruguay and England. Yet it was the Ticos who finished on top with two wins and a draw while conceding just once. Their stunning ride continued by ousting Greece on penalty kicks in the round of 16 before being undone in similar fashion by the Netherlands.

Serbia is in the World Cup for the second time in three editions since its latest incarnation as a country ahead of qualifying for the 2010 tournament. The Orlovi have not been to the knockout round since reaching the round of 16 in 1998 when they were known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In previous iterations, Serbia’s best showing were fourth-place finishes in both the inaugural 1930 World Cup and again in 1962. The Orlovi have just one win in their last two appearances and finished last in the 32-team field in 2006.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

All five of Costa Rica’s World Cup appearances have come since qualifying for the first time in 1990. The Ticos finished second to Mexico in the final round of CONCACAF play despite not winning any of their final three matches but also sweeping the United States.

Oscar Ramirez had balanced scoring as 10 different players had at least one goal, with Marco Urena leading the way with three of his team’s 14 markers. Prior to their first quarterfinal appearance four years ago, Costa Rica had only reached the knockout round in its maiden showing in 1990.

Serbia also booked its spot in the World Cup via automatic qualification, finishing atop a group that included Ireland and 2016 European Championship semifinalist Wales. The Orlovi went unbeaten through their first eight matches and secured their spot by beating Georgia in their finale.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored a group-high six goals and Dusan Tadic contributed four with seven assists as Serbia qualified for its first major tournament since the 2010 World Cup.

FORMATIONS

Costa Rica uses three center backs with a pair of wide backs that can shift between a 5-2-2-1 and a 3-4-2-1. But it all starts between the sticks with Keylor Navas, who is the best goalkeeper in the CONCACAF region and coming off his third consecutive Champions League title with Real Madrid.

There is one key change on the right side with defender Ronald Matarrita unavailable due to a hamstring injury. On the left, Christian Gamboa will try to push forward on rhe flank to provide support for Celso Borges. Up front, talisman Bryan Ruiz is back for his second World Cup after scoring twice in Brazil, but he also had a penalty saved in the quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands.

Borges and Ruiz are the two most capped players on the Ticos roster with 111 and 110, respectively, which puts them in the top five all-time. If Borges plays all three games, he will move into third place and Ruiz would move into a tie for fourth if he does likewise.

The Orlovi will likely set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and there is quality in the spine with central defender Branson Ivanovic and midfielder Nemanja Matic ahead of him. Partnering with Ivanovic is 20-year-old Nikola Milenkovic, who has just three caps to his name.

Mitrovic and Tadic are the offensive focal points up front for Serbia, but playmaker Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be under pressure to produce after coach Mladen Krstajic was able to bring him back into the fold after being exiled by predecessor Slavoljub Muslin. The midfielder scored 15 goals for Lazio in all competitions this season but has just four caps.

Ivanovic is the only centurion on Serbia’s roster with 103 international appearances, and will become the country’s all-time leader with his next appearance. Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic (81), Kolarov (76) and Tadic (53) are all over the half-century mark.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Costa Rica – Joel Campbell (M) 

The 25-year-old had a goal and an assist in the 2014 World Cup and also showed plenty of calm in converting against Greece in the round of 16. Campbell has plenty of pace, and with an inexperienced central defender on his side in Milenkovic, look for the Ticos to try and find him in space to let him cut into the final third.

Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic (F)

After failing to make an impact with Newcastle United and having loan deals to both Anderlecht and Bordeaux fail to materialize, Mitrovic took out his frustrations constructively in helping Fulham win promotion to the Premier League. He scored 12 goals in 17 league matches for the Cottagers after arriving in February, and the 23-year-old already has 16 goals in 37 international appearances.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Even with three Champions League titles, Navas will reportedly be on the move after the World Cup as new Real coach Julen Lopetegui reportedly wants Manchester United keeper David De Gea at the Bernabeu. Campbell is technically on loan for Arsenal at Real Betis, and it would not be surprising to see him at least make a bid for a spot with the Gunners before possibly returning to Portugal next season.

Tadic could be yet another Southampton player who winds up at Anfield with Liverpool, though Everton were reportedly interested in the winger last month as well. Newcastle have reportedly put a £15 million transfer price on Mitrovic, and it may be up to Fulham to decide if the striker is worth the price tag as it makes the jump to the top flight.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Serbia are decided favorites for this contest with 10-11 odds to win compared to 7-2 for Costa Rica. The odds of a draw are listed at 11-5. Mitrovic is the first choice as first goal-scorer with 10-3 odds, followed by Aleksandar Prijovic (7-2) and Luka Jovic (4-1). For the Ticos, Johan Venegas and Urena are joint-favorites at 13-2 while Ruiz is 8-1.

PREDICTION

In Group E, there is Brazil… and there is everyone else, which makes the race for second wide open among the Ticos, Serbia and Switzerland. Costa Rica and Switzerland both made the knockout round four years ago, so there are no easy outs in this group.

The Orlovi have the talent on paper to give Costa Rica all sorts of problems, but relying on a playmaking midfielder with just four international appearances in the World Cup seems unorthodox at best and foolish at worst. The good news for Serbia is Mitrovic has been irresistible of late and had a hat trick in Serbia’s 5-1 thumping of Brazil in a tune-up earlier this month.

If Milinkovic-Savic can get the ball to the Fulham forward, good things can happen, even against a world-class keeper in Navas. This is not a good matchup for Costa Rica since Ivanovic and Matic are very good at shutting down opponents, and the Ticos do not have a dynamic midfield that controls possession.

It will be choppy at times, but Serbia should emerge with a 1-0 victory.

2018 World Cup — Group D Croatia vs Nigeria Match Preview

They could be group stage flameouts or darkhorse semifinalists at this World Cup, and both Croatia and Nigeria look to begin making that distinction Saturday in their Group D opener in Kaliningrad.

Croatia is back in the World Cup for the second straight time and has missed only one tournament in the six World Cups they have been eligible for since being allowed to particiapte in 1998. The Vatreni, however, have not escaped group play since that initial appearance 20 years ago when Davor Suker led them to a third-place finish in France.

Nigeria is making its third consecutive World Cup appearance and sixth in the last seven tournaments. The Super Eagles made the knockout round in Brazil before being outclassed by France in the round of 16, and that remains the high-water mark for Africa’s most populous nation after also doing so in 1994 and 1998.

While Croatia will rely on the veteran poise of midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Nigeria has plenty of youth in its attack, led by Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi and Ahmed Musa, who joined CSKA Moscow after failing to stick with Leicester City, where compatriot Kelechi Iheanacho was ahead of him in the pecking order.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

For the second straight World Cup, Croatia qualified via the playoff route. After topping Iceland in 2014, the Vatreni finished runners-up to them this time around in a group that also featured Turkey and Ukraine. The failure to win the group cost Ante Cacic his job, and Zlatko Dalic took over for the final two group matches after turning UAE club Al-Ain into a regional power in Asia.

Croatia claimed four points to finish second and made quick work of Greece under Dalic, winning the first leg at home 4-1 to cruise to qualification, but it has been uneven in its four friendlies this year, losing to Peru and Brazil while defeating Mexico and Senegal.

Nigeria emerged from arguably the most difficult qualifying group in Africa, comfortably winning a four-team round-robin with Zambia and 2014 World Cup participants Cameroon and Algeria. The Super Eagles did have to overcome a 3-0 forfeit loss to Algeria in group play when it was determined Shehu Abdullahi did not serve a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation but still won the group by five points.

The Super Eagles have struggled in the buildup to the World Cup, which started with a 4-0 pasting by Morocco in the African Cup of Nations final in February. They went 1-1-4 in six friendlies, beating only Poland while suffering losses to Serbia, England and the Czech Republic.

FORMATIONS

The teams will mirror each other with 4-2-3-1 formations. There is quality across Croatia’s backline, featuring Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and Lokomotiv’s Verdun Corluka in central defense. Sime Vrsaljko should be able to push forward from right back, and Rakitic will be a force in the defensive midfield.

Perisic and Modric move well in attack and both will provide service to Marko Mandzukic, who has 30 goals in 83 international appearances. Six of the starting XI are 30 or older for the Vatreni, with Modric leading the way with 106 international appearances. Corluka will reach the century mark with his next appearance.

In contrast, Nigeria will start a teenager between the sticks in Francis Uzoho, who has made six international appearances. Abdullahi is the most seasoned defender of this projected starting lineup with 25 international appearances. Wilfred Ndidi will provide support as a defensive midfielder and has played well in that role with Leicester City.

The Super Eagles will rely on talisman Jon Mikel Obi to control the midfield while relying on the pace of Iwobi and nous of Moses. Odion Ighalo, who left Watford for Chinese side Changchun Yatai in the 2017 January transfer window, is expected to get first crack at striker while Musa and Iheanacho are waiting in the wings. Mikel is Nigeria’s most-capped player with 85 appearances, and despite being only 25, Musa is second with 72.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Croatia – Luka Modric (MF)

He is not flashy, he is not quick, but Modric can quietly dominate a match with his passing and vision. The most recent example of that came with Real Madrid in the Champions League final, and he also can pop up for the occasional goal, evidenced in the first-leg win over Greece in the World Cup playoff.

Nigeria – Alex Iwobi (MF)

Iwobi still looks like a man without a position at times for Arsenal, but his pace on the right side will be something Croatia cannot afford to underestimate. Iwobi scored a pair of goals in Nigeria’s qualifying route, and the 22-year-old has five goals in 19 international appearances. Given the uncertainty around Arsenal’s makeover with new coach Unai Emery, Iwobi could use the World Cup as a springboard to a new destination.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Nigeria midfielder Joel Obi is reportedly being pursued by Crystal Palace, with both Benfica and Porto in the mix. On the Croatian side, Vrsaljko has piqued the curiosity of both Manchester United and Napoli, and Perisic has been linked with making a move from Inter Milan to a potential landing spot with Spurs.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Croatia are heavy favorites with 8-11 odds compared to Nigeria being listed at 21-5. The odds of a draw are 12-5. For opening goal-scorers, Mandzukic is the front-runner at 4-1 and teammate Nikola Kalinic is second at 9-2. Perisic is given 6-1 odds to give the Vatreni a 1-0 advantage, while Iheanacho is Nigeria’s top option at 13-2, followed by Ighalo at 7-1.

PREDICTION

In cases like this, experience usually triumphs over youth. Or as the old adage goes, “Young teams find ways to lose.” Nigeria has not looked terribly impressive under Gernot Rhor, who is coaching his fourth African country this decade after stops at Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso.

There will be a lot of pressure on Mikel to make good decisions in the midfield, and Ighalo is also going to have his hands full in the final third against what is a sneaky good back line. If Lovren shows the same form he had in the Champions League final with Liverpool, Croatia will be in good shape defensively.

Modric will be the fulcrum for this match, looking for creases in the back four while taking advantage of what will likely be an eager and aggressive Nigeria side. If the Vatreni can get set pieces, they could be quite dangerous in addition to using Mandzukic as a target forward.

Expect Croatia to test Uzoho early from distance to see what kind of hands the Super Eagles teenager has and then look for Modric to pull apart Nigeria’s defense. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing match, but the Vatreni should get off to a positive start with a 3-1 win.

2018 World Cup — Group C Peru vs Denmark Match Preview

After ending a 36-year drought in making its first World Cup appearance since 1982, Peru now sets out to end a 40-year winless drought in football’s biggest tournament Saturday when it faces Denmark in its Group C opener in Saransk.

This is the first trip to the World Cup for the Incas since finishing last in Group A in Spain in 1982. One has to turn back the calendar four more years for their last World Cup victory as they advanced to the second round in 1978 with wins over Scotland and Iran before going winless in a second group stage and finishing eighth.

Denmark’s absence from the World Cup is notably shorter as it returns after missing out in 2014. The European country crashed out in group play in it last appearance in 2010, a far cry from the Danish Dynamite sides that reached the knockout rounds in 1986, 1998 and 2002 in their first three World Cup appearances.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Peru started South American qualifying as the fourth-lowest ranked squad of the 10 countries with a FIFA ranking of 50 and lived up to that form with four points through its first seven matches. But veteran strikers Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan meshed well with a younger set of teammates in the midfield as the Incas claimed 22 of a possible 33 points in the final 11 qualifiers to claim the fifth and final spot out of CONMEBOL.

The Incas secured that spot on the final matchday, sweating out a draw versus Colombia while Brazil beat Chile 3-0. That two-goal swing was enough to give Peru a better goal difference than the reigning Copa America champions with both teams on 26 points.

But Peru still had work to do in the form of an intercontinental playoff versus Oceania representative New Zealand. After earning a scoreless draw on the road in the first leg, Farfan and Christian Ramos scored goals on either side of halftime to give the Incas a 2-0 aggregate victory and a spot in the World Cup.

Like its South American counterpart, Denmark also had to navigate the playoff route to punch its ticket to Russia. The Danes finished second to Poland in Group E during European qualifying and were paired with Ireland in a two-legged playoff. After a scoreless draw at home, Christian Eriksen took matters into his own hands in Dublin, scoring three goals as Denmark overturned an early deficit and recorded a 5-1 victory.

Even with its flameout in South Africa eight years ago, Denmark has proven to be a tough out in group play, compiling a 7-2-3 record in its four appearances.

FORMATIONS

Both teams are fond of the 4-2-3-1 formation, and Peru’s defense has been impressive with the turn of the calendar year, conceding just once in their five friendlies while going 4-1-0 in their World Cup preparation. Ramos and Alberto Rodriguez form the spine of the Incas in central defense while Yoshimar Yotun and Renato Tapia providing support in the midfield.

The magic, though, is in Peru’s attack where Christian Cueva pulls the strings looking to set up Guerrero and Farfan. The duo have 59 goals in international play, and winger Edison Flores will be no stranger to Denmark after spending the past two seasons with Aalborg in the Danish Superliga.

Guerrero and Farfan are Peru’s most senior players with 88 and 84 caps, respectively. Rodriguez and Yotun are tied for third with 74, while Ramos (68) and Luis Advincula (67) are the other players with more than 50 appearances for the Incas.

Denmark has a strong No. 1 between the sticks in Kasper Schemichel, who backstopped Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2016 and is the son of legendary keeper Peter Schemichel. Talisman Simon Kjaer and promising Chelsea product Andreas Christensen anchor the central defense.

Eriksen has license to roam freely in the midfield, and the Tottenham Hotspur is one of the more creative players at the World Cup. While the Danes will be without injured first-choice striker Nicklas Bendtner, who has 30 goals in international play, Nicolai Jorgensen and Yussuf Poulsen could form a potent trident of attack with Eriksen.

Midfielder William Kvist is the most senior player on Denmark’s side with 80 caps, with Kjaer and Eriksen right behind him at 78. Fellow veteran midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli is the last of the four Danes with at least a half-century of caps, amassing 59.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Peru – Paolo Guerrero (F)

The World Cup is a second lease on international play for Guerrero, who was originally set to serve a ban for testing positive for benzoylecgonine, the active ingredient in cocaine. But the team captains for the other three teams in the group wrote in support of suspending the ban so Guerrero could play in the World Cup and then serve the balance after they complete play. He scored twice in Peru’s 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia earlier this month and is the country’s all-time leading scorer.

Denmark – Christian Eriksen (MF)

Eriksen put a huge target on his back by carrying Denmark past Ireland in the European playoff and is no stranger to the big stage after helping Spurs reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League and totaling 14 goals and 12 assists in 48 matches across all competitions.

A very cerebral player, Eriksen is important to Denmark in terms of controlling the tempo and exploiting an opponent’s weakness in addition. He is also a willing defender who mastered backtracking as part of Spurs’ two primary formations as they used both a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Eriksen is reportedly drawing interest from reigning three-time Champions League winner Real Madrid, which saw how good he was first-hand as Spurs recorded a win and a draw in group play. Schmeichel could be tipped for a move to Liverpool, which is in need of a commanding presence between the sticks to mount a title challenge against Manchester City in the English Premier League.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Denmark is a slight favorite at 11-8 odds, with Peru listed at 11-5. There are also 2-1 odds for the teams playing to a draw. Guerrero and Jorgensen are joint-favorites for the first goal of the match, getting 9-2 odds, while Eriksen is further down the list at 6-1 odds. Farfan is the second-best option for Peru at 13-2.

PREDICTION

There is not much to separate these teams. While Peru may have the better finishers in Guerrero and Farfan, Denmark has the best playmaker on the field in Eriksen, and that could make all the difference. On paper, the Danes also have the better shot-stopper in Schmeichel, though he did have an up-and-down season in the Midlands with Leicester City.

Peru is a very cohesive unit, and surviving the grind that is South American qualifying is nothing to be scoffed at. The Incas defeated three World Cup teams in their run-up, and the Danes did not concede in their final four friendlies. Denmark looked impressive in its final tune-up, a 2-0 victory over Mexico, and also played a full-strength Chile to a scoreless draw in March.

A 1-1 draw seems like the most logical result for this opener, but when anything is possible in the World Cup, a moment of magic from Eriksen will prove decisive as Denmark opens with a 2-1 victory.

UP NEXT

Denmark will face Australia in Samara on Thursday, while Peru moves on to face group favorite France earlier that day in Ekaterinburg.